Siachen: A Ridge Too Far

Since 2004, the Indian and Pakistani governments have pursued a peace process centered on the disputed province of Kashmir. Among the key issues discussed has been that of the Siachen Glacier, the world’s highest battleground, located in the Kashmir region. While there has been a ceasefire in effect on the glacier since November 2003, thousands of soldiers still confront each other across the icy terrain. At present, the Indian Army occupies the dominant positions on the Saltoro Ridge, on the western edge of the glacier, while the Pakistani army is stationed at lower positions. Most of the several thousand casualties on the glacier, where temperatures drop beneath 50 degrees below zero Celsius in the winter, have been weather-related rather than through physical violence.

From the U.S. foreign policy perspective, settlement of the Siachen dispute would be a significant step in defusing tensions between two crucial allies. Islamabad has been an important partner of Washington, especially since 9/11, while the U.S. and India have embarked on a strategic partnership, most notably by signing a nuclear cooperation agreement.

While both India and Pakistan agree that demilitarization of Siachen is essential, they strongly differ on the substance of such a deal. In particular, New Delhi has demanded that Pakistan authenticate currently held positions on the Saltoro Ridge as a guarantee against any future invasion, while Pakistan has refused to do so. The competing positions on both sides are also hardened by their desire for a settlement that would take into account the sacrifice of thousands on each side.

Demilitarization of Siachen is crucial to overall stability between India and Pakistan. But the confidence-building measures (CBM) proposed through the demilitarization of Siachen also come with great risks. The United States, which has remained aloof from this specific conflict, could receive substantial indirect benefits from a compromise over Siachen.

The Contesting Arguments

The uninhabited Siachen glacier became a bone of contention between the subcontinental rivals only in the 1980s. In April 1984, both India and Pakistan, fearing the impending occupation of the heights by the other, raced to take over the glacier. The Indian Army managed to occupy the commanding heights on Saltoro Ridge while Pakistani forces were stationed at lower positions. The two armies have established forward bases at heights ranging from 9,000 to 22,000 ft. This stalemate has continued to now. In the intervening decades the two sides have suffered 3,500-5,000 casualties.

The dispute over the glacier stems from an ambiguity in the 1948 Karachi ceasefire agreement, which did not specify the dividing line between Pakistan and India except that it would continue “thence north to the glaciers.” India has claimed that a strict northward progression of the boundary puts the glacier firmly within Indian boundary limits, while Pakistan has interpreted the agreement to mean that the boundary runs northeast to the Karakoram pass that then puts the glacier on its side. Since 2003, a ceasefire has been in effect on the glacier that has reinforced the possibility of a permanent settlement. Proponents of demilitarization are hopeful that a top-down conflict resolution framework could facilitate a resolution of the Kashmir dispute. But repeated talks on this issue between high-level representatives of the two governments, the last round being in April 2007, have ended in stalemate.

The point of divide between the Indian and Pakistani stances is over the authentication and acceptance of the current ceasefire line in Siachen, commonly known as the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL). The mistrust is based on past experiences as well as the fear of irreversible negative consequences in the future. India’s policy on this issue is based on Ronald Reagan’s maxim – trust, but verify. New Delhi’s stand is that Islamabad must authenticate its position on the ground to guard against any future intrusion. Such an authentication seeks to ensure that the international community would see any attempt to change the status quo as a clear violation of a de facto international border.

The Indian Army, including senior officers commanding troops on the glacier, has periodically voiced its opposition to any agreement that does not include authentication. It argues that if Pakistan went back on any commitments and occupied the glacier, including the vacated Indian positions, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to retake the heights. There is some disagreement among military experts and strategists even in New Delhi over the strategic importance of the glacier. Some have stressed the futility of combat in such an inhospitable environment in an area that they concede has no strategic value. They have stated that once India withdraws its forces from the glacier, Pakistan would likely to do the same. Other experts consider Siachen crucial because it forms India’s northernmost frontier against Pakistan and China and wedges between Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) and Aksai Chin, which is controlled by China. Given that India has fought wars with Pakistan and China there is a perceived threat of the two potential adversaries joining forces to threaten Ladakh and Kargil in northern Kashmir. Apart from this strategic significance, Siachen is also considered important for India because the glacier forms the headwaters for the Nubra River that flows into Indian territory.

Islamabad has consistently refused to authenticate its positions on the AGPL out of a concern that India would use this concession to make a legal claim on the glacier. Officials in Islamabad maintain that authentication would then compromise Pakistan’s position not just on the Siachen dispute but on the Kashmir issue as a whole. Pakistan fears that India would at a later stage claim the entire glacier as well as reinforce control over the Kashmir valley.

Islamabad also doesn’t want to appear to admit to its domestic audience that the Pakistani army is not operating from a position of strength on the glacier and therefore indirectly deliver a blow to the army’s morale. Such a confirmation might also increase dissatisfaction against the Musharraf regime at a time when he is under growing pressure from various political and fundamentalist groups.

Building Confidence

An analytical distinction should be made between low-risk and high-risk confidence-building measures (CBM). Low-risk CBMs such as establishment of transportation links are easier to implement because the negative consequences of one side reneging on the deal can be dealt with (such as by ending the transport links).

However, in the case of a high-risk CBM like demilitarizing Siachen, reneging by one side would be disastrous for the other, both in terms of the actual security implications as well as the inevitable domestic upheavals that would follow. Thus, the incentives for both sides to cooperate have to increase, such as through technical means of verification acceptable to both sides. At the same time, both sides already have in place CBMs related to lessening nuclear tensions, the most recent one being a nuclear risk reduction agreement in February 2007. Thus, there is a realization that issues that are directly linked to military confrontation have to be alleviated.

The fears outlined by each side can be alleviated to a degree with satellite technology, which would detect any transgression of the agreement by either side, deterring any secret military incursions onto the glacier. If one side occupies the glacier once again, however, dislodging it would be extremely difficult. When the Indian Army took the heights in 1984, Pakistani troops were not present on the Saltoro Ridge. The problems of maintaining control on the glacier are already immense, therefore recapturing it from an occupying force would be even tougher. As such, the proposed CBMs remain high-risk.

Washington’s Stakes

A Siachen settlement conforms to U.S. foreign policy interests in the region by lessening tensions between two crucial allies. However, the Bush administration has not taken a public position on this specific dispute and has not pressed either side to reach an agreement. There are several possible reasons for such a lack of approach.

Although Southwest Asia remains a key U.S. concern, especially from the counter-terrorism perspective, the administration has been distracted by several crisis situations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and potentially in Iran and North Korea. Moreover, in the last two years, Washington’s interactions with New Delhi have been centered mainly on negotiations for the nuclear agreement.

The administration is also likely aware that any public pronouncements could galvanize some domestic opposition groups in both India and Pakistan against any concessions by their respective governments on the Siachen issue. Both India and Pakistan have significant political constituencies that perceive any U.S. involvement in their country’s security issues as intrusive. Pakistan is increasingly resentful of what they view as unreasonable U.S. pressure on Islamabad to crack down on militant networks, as well as Washington’s desire to directly question A.Q. Khan, the disgraced Pakistani scientist. In India, the recent rejection of the nuclear agreement — primarily by the communist parties, but also by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party – showed that a U.S. link to a major security policy move by New Delhi can undercut a specific initiative.

Finally, given the ongoing dialogue between India and Pakistan, Washington perhaps doesn’t need to insert itself into the proceedings at this juncture. After all, the United States does not need to push India and Pakistan toward talking on the Siachen issue – they are already doing so. There is broad U.S. support for any peace initiatives between India and Pakistan, and therefore specifically focusing on one particular issue is not necessary.

But at the same time, the United States could play a role in the implementation. If the two opposing sides agree, Washington could provide neutral satellite monitoring facilities to oversee continued implementation of an agreement. Of course, such a scenario is contingent on the two sides transcending the high-risk character of the confidence-building mechanism and concluding a deal.

The key obstacle to a settlement on this issue is the lack of trust on both sides. To remedy this trust deficit, the two sides could work together on a different but related issue. India and Pakistan could address, for instance, the environmental situation of the glacier, which is increasingly becoming important in the debate over the glacier. Recent scientific data suggests that glaciers in the Himalayas are retreating at an alarming rate and shrank by as much as 20% between 1962 and 2001.

One recent proposal has been to jointly clean up the glacier where large amounts of waste have accumulated over the years. The aim is to transform the Siachen area into a “mountain of peace.” Such a CBM that could help remedy the trust deficit between the two sides and act as a catalyst for meaningful moves on the Kashmir dispute. Non-governmental groups have advocated a “Siachen Peace Park,” to stem the degradation of the glacier, while the Indian Army has started a clean-up project under the “Green-Siachen Clean Siachen” plan.

But, such cooperative environmental protection proposals can come to fruition only after there is movement on demilitarization of the glacier. Until then Siachen, as a confidence-building measure, remains a ridge too far.

Sharad Joshi is a postdoctoral Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org).