In the icy waste of Siachen Glacier, one Indian soldier dies every month due to the extreme weather. Besides loss of lives, the cost of maintaining soldiers at such high altitude runs into millions of dollars for both India and Pakistan. They can’t afford the costs of this useless war and it is high time their political and military leaders realize this.
A recent avalanche on the Siachen Glacier that engulfed an Indian military post claimed the lives of ten Indian soldiers. The tragedy has underscored the enormous human, material and financial costs that India and Pakistan are incurring by keeping their soldiers deployed in this brutal battlefield.
The Siachen Glacier lies at the tri-junction of India, Pakistan and China. It overlooks the strategic Karakoram Pass. Neither the 1948 ceasefire line nor the 1972 Simla Agreement provided clarity on where the border runs in the Siachen region.
In 1984, anticipating a Pakistani assault on the Siachen, India moved swiftly to take control of the glacier. Since then, the Siachen has emerged an important bone of contention between the two countries. The Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) separates the positions of the two sides in the Siachen region.
Since 1984, India and Pakistan have deployed troops in the area and have fought bloody battles over it, earning the glacier the title of the ‘world’s highest battlefield.’
Since November 2003, when a ceasefire took effect along the India-Pakistan international border, the line of control and the AGPL, the exchange of fire at the Siachen has stopped. The guns are silent. Yet the Siachen continues to claim lives.
Figures of fatalities show that its treacherous environment is more deadly than enemy fire. Just a fifth of the 883 Indian soldiers said to have been killed in the Siachen over the past 32 years fell to Pakistani bullets. Nature’s fury and medical problems killed the rest.
The Siachen Glacier is an icy wasteland where temperatures drop to minus 40 degrees Celsius and blizzards are known to touch speeds of 300 kilometers per hour. The glacier lies at an altitude of around 5,400 meters. Survival at this height is extremely difficult as the air is sparse. High altitude pulmonary and cerebral edemas are common among soldiers deployed at the Siachen Glacier.
Pakistan too has suffered heavily in the Siachen. In 2012, an avalanche buried its army base in Gyari, killing 129 soldiers and 11 civilians.
Besides the death toll is the economic cost of maintaining soldiers at this altitude. While neither India nor Pakistan has made public the financial costs of deployment in the Siachen – India bears a larger burden as it has deployed at higher altitudes – current estimates indicate that this may be around $1 million per day.
Not surprisingly, there are sections in India and Pakistan that are calling on both countries to withdraw troops from the Siachen Glacier. Among these are former military personnel who have served in the Siachen. Some of them insist that the glacier has no strategic value for India; hence a pullout is not a major risk.
Others insist that India should not fritter away the advantage it has in the region. After all it is in control of not only the glacier but also the Saltoro Ridge to its west. Withdrawing from the Siachen would be a big blunder, they argue, as Pakistan will quickly occupy the heights when India pulls out its troops from the area. In the circumstances, a demilitarization of the glacier would be disastrous for India.
India and Pakistan have been seeking a negotiated solution to the Siachen conflict and are believed to have been on the brink of settling it in 1989.
However, governments in both countries developed cold feet and chickened out.
The Siachen conflict is among the issues that figure in the bilateral composite dialogue. It is often described as a “low hanging fruit” that is within reach of a solution should India and Pakistan decide to resolve their many disputes.
However, is the Siachen conflict really that easy to settle? Yes, say the peaceniks pointing to the 1989 deal that is apparently only waiting for signatures.
The problem is that since 1989, much has changed in the India-Pakistan relationship.
That was the year when Pakistan’s backing of the militancy in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir ignited an insurgency in the state. Since then Pakistan’s support to terrorist groups has expanded to include those carrying out attacks in other parts of India.
Besides, its military intrusion at Kargil in 1999 severely eroded trust between the two countries. In the circumstances, it is difficult for India to withdraw its troops from the Siachen.
But it is not impossible, says an Indian army officer who was posted in the Siachen in the 1990s. He suggests that the two sides need to jointly demarcate the AGPL on the ground and in maps, and put in place steps for joint verification and monitoring.
Importantly, it will require both sides to admit they cannot afford the costs of this useless war. That wisdom is yet to dawn on the political and military establishments of the two countries.
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org